Last revised: December 4, 2023
By: Adam Burns
California is one of the great states to discover heritage railroads and museums aimed at highlighting its history with trains.
The options are numerous and some of the state's most notable include the California State Railroad Museum, California Western Railroad ("The Skunk Train"), Knott's Berry Farm, Napa Valley Wine Train, Niles Canyon Railway, RailGiants Train Museum, Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, Roaring Camp Railroads, Sacramento River Fox Train, Sierra Railroad, Western Pacific Railroad Museum, and the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad.
Most of these organizations offer excursions, although not all. In addition, while many now provide some type of food service aboard their trains this amenity is still offered only on select runs.
California's history with trains did not begin until the Arcata & Mad River Railroad was formed in 1854, although this was a local operation only. In actuality, it wasn't until the completion of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific in 1869 at Promontory Summit, Utah, opening the first Transcontinental Railroad to the west coast at Sacramento, did the state's involvement with the iron horse begin in earnest.
By 1920, more than 8,000 route miles of track served California, much of which was comprised of the Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, and Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (Santa Fe).
Until Amtrak began service on May 1, 1971 one could take a several famous trains from Chicago to Los Angeles/San Francisco with names like the City of San Francisco, San Francisco Chief, City of Los Angeles, California Zephyr, and others. These trains are still fondly remembered today.
The information included here highlights those organizations running dinner trains, or offering some type of food service.
Perhaps the best dinner train experience you can enjoy throughout the country-wide is the Napa Valley Wine Train. They host a wide range of dinner options (including wine) aboard their train which operates through the beautiful Napa Valley region.
The Napa Valley Wine Train launched operations on September 16, 1989 over 18 miles a former Southern Pacific branch between Napa and Calistoga. The line was acquired for $2.5 million and quickly grew in popularity due to the scenery through local wineries and upscale accommodations.
Since trains began running, the railroad has slowly added more services and has now hosted more than 2 million riders.
The Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad operates the "Starlight Evening Dinner Train Party" during select dates that features a steak dinner, train ride, and live entertainment.
What became the Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad began as the dream of F. Norman Clark who wanted to bring back the majestic steam locomotive.
His idea began in the late 1950s when steam was all but gone from main line railroads. Eventually, Clark located a 2-Truck Shay in Dixiana, Virginia and acquired nearly 200 acres of property on the Big Trees Ranch in Santa Cruz County. Clark would go on to construct a 3-mile line with some grades at over 9%.
The railroad remains a very popular excursion, offering the only chance to ride a train through a virgin stand of giant redwood trees.
The River Fox Train (previously known as the Sacramento RiverTrain), based in West Sacramento, features upscale dinner train packages offering entertainment with your meal during the three-hour trip. They also provide special trains and events throughout the year.
The railroad operates about 10 miles of track from Woodland to Sacramento over property that was formerly part of the Sacramento Northern Railway, an electrified interurban. Trains board at West Sacramento along the Sacramento River, heading west to Woodland before returning.
During select times throughout the operating season the railroad operates specials known as the Moonlight Special, which feature dinner at the station, a train ride, and live entertainment.
They also offer a Mother's Day Brunch train; before your trip you can enjoy coffee or hot cocoa and afterwards partake in a quick bite to eat.
This narrow-gauge operation, operates 4 miles of ex-Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company trackage near Fish Camp, California in the Sierra National Forest. It all began in 1961 thanks to the vision of Rudy Stauffer who rebuilt part of the network.
Today, railroad is well known for its use of rare, geared Shay steam locomotives that historically were used in the transportation of logs and lumber.